A Christmas carol

I HAVE JUST HEARD a BBC concert of Christmas music this evening (18th of December 2020). The performance was good, the music and songs enjoyable, and that was just about it until we reached the final item, a performance of “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. The ‘author’ of the words of this carol, which were originally in Latin, is uncertain but might be one of the following: John Francis Wade (1711–1786), John Reading (1645–1692), King John IV of Portugal (1604–1656), and anonymous Cistercian monks. Hearing this carol evoked strong emotions and recalled memories of long ago.

St Michaels, Highgate

Every Christmas term when I was at school, we had to sing the carol in Latin. Its first verse is as follows:

“Adeste fideles læti triumphantes,

Venite, venite in Bethlehem.

Natum videte

Regem angelorum:

Venite adoremus, venite adoremus, venite adoremus,


Hearing the tune of this hymn transports my mind to the wooden pews in the large draughty nave of the Victorian Church of St Michael in Highgate (built by 1832). Our school’s Christmas Carol service took place in that church. For some inexplicable reason, the carol moved me much more than any of the other carols that were sung year after year, and whenever I hear it, it still stirs up strong emotions.

After leaving my school in Highgate, and completing my PhD, I used to spend Christmas with my PhD supervisor, Professor Robert Harkness, and his family. On Christmas morning after breakfast, we used to tramp across the fields in the Buckinghamshire countryside to Hedgerley Church, where we attended a Christmas morning service. The service involved carol singing. The song “O, Come All Ye Faithful” was sung every year, in its English translation. Robert, who had been schooled at Winchester and had a strong, good singing voice, always sung the song in Latin whilst everyone around him sung it in English.

I left school fifty years ago. I last spent Christmas with the Harkness family in about 1998, and Robert died in 2006. Far off as these events are becoming, hearing this carol, either in Latin or in English, always manages to evoke a welling of nostalgic feelings. Why this should occur, is a mystery to me.

Abolishing slavery and an obelisk

BLACK LIVES MATTERED MUCH to young Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. One day when he was walking with his horse from Cambridge to London, he stopped on a slope that was above and in sight of the Feathers Inn at Wadesmill (Hertfordshire) next to a bridge crossing the River Rib on a stretch of the old Roman road known as Ermine Street.

A student at St Johns College in Cambridge, he had just won a prize for his essay (in Latin) that addressed the subject “Is it right to make slaves of others against their will?” Soon after writing his piece, he published an English translation of it. Clarkson, who had done much research into slavery past and in his time, was thoroughly disapproving of the slave trade. The concluding paragraph of his long and well-reasoned essay, rich in factual material, summarises the young man’s objection to slavery:

“For if liberty is only an adventitious right; if men are by no means superiour to brutes; if every social duty is a curse; if cruelty is highly to be esteemed; if murder is strictly honourable, and Christianity is a lye; then it is evident, that the African slavery may be pursued, without either the remorse of conscience, or the imputation of a crime. But if the contrary of this is true, which reason must immediately evince, it is evident that no custom established among men was ever more impious; since it is contrary to reason, justice, nature, the principles of law and government, the whole doctrine, in short, of natural religion, and the revealed voice of God.”

With the Feathers inn ahead of him, he had a revelation. In his own words:

“Coming in sight of Wades Mill in Hertfordshire, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end. Agitated in this manner I reached home. This was in the summer of 1785”

That revelation, like a Dick Whittington moment or the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head, set Thomas on his life’s mission to abolish slavery. His essay inspired the formation of a small group of Quakers, whose aim was to lobby the British Parliament to campaign against slavery. Soon, this led to the formation of a non-denominational ‘Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ (in 1787).  Clarkson was a member of this committee. It was he who encouraged the young (and now well-known) William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a Member of Parliament, to join the group.

Although it was Wilberforce who introduced the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, it was Clarkson, who worked tirelessly to persuade the British public of the desirability to bring an end to the trade in human cargoes. Clarkson travelled about 35,000 miles throughout Britain, amassing information about the slave trade and persuading people of its evil nature. He collected evidence of the cruelties and injustices of slavery from 20,000 sailors who had worked or were working on slave carrying ships. He wrote several pamphlets about the slave trade and its impropriety and assembled visual aids with which he could dramatically purvey its horrors and cruelties to the British public, whom he encountered during his extensive travels.

When, finally in 1807, the Act for Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed by the British Parliament, the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote a sonnet in honour of Clarkson’s immense efforts to defeat the slave trade. Called “To Thomas Clarkson On the final passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, March, 1807.”, it goes like this:

“Clarkson! it was an obstinate Hill to climb:

How toilsome, nay how dire it was, by Thee

Is known,—by none, perhaps, so feelingly;

But Thou, who, starting in thy fervent prime,

Didst first lead forth this pilgrimage sublime,

Hast heard the constant Voice its charge repeat,

Which, out of thy young heart’s oracular seat,

First roused thee.—O true yoke-fellow of Time

With unabating effort, see, the palm

Is won, and by all Nations shall be worn!

The bloody Writing is for ever torn,

And Thou henceforth shalt have a good Man’s calm,

A great Man’s happiness; thy zeal shall find

Repose at length, firm Friend of human kind!”

It was descending the hill to Wadesmill that set Clarkson, the real initiator of the abolition of the slave trade, that set him to “… climb that obstinate Hill…” And his halt near Wademill, in sight of the Feathers inn has not been forgotten. An obelisk by the roadside commemorates Clarkson’s ‘light bulb moment’. The base of the obelisk bears the words:

“On the spot where stands this monument in the month of June 1775 Thomas Clarkson resolved to devote his life to bringing about the abolition of the slave trade.”

The monument was erected in 1879 for a chess playing barrister, Arthur Giles Puller (1833-1885) of Youngsbury, which is close to Wadesmill. According to a web page , http://abolition.e2bn.org/source_27.html:

“In 1833, Basil Montague asked Thomas Clarkson to show a party of abolitionists, the exact spot where he decided to dedicate his life to ending slavery. A young Charles Merivale went with them. Years later he became Dean of Ely and told his story to Arthur Giles Puller, of Youngsbury, who offered to help him fulfil his promise to mark the spot. Charles Merivale unveiled the monument on 8th October, 1879.”

Charles Merivale (1808-1893), apart from becoming the Dean of Ely, was one of the founders of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race, which was first held in 1829. Destined for a career in India (which he decided against), he studied both at Haileybury College and St Johns College Cambridge, where Clarkson had also studied.

Clarkson’s monument was restored by members of the US Airforce in the 1950s. in June 1972, it was moved 9 yards up the road to allow some road widening. Finally, in November 2007, a very thorough restoration and repair of the monument was completed. Now in 2020, part of the base looks as if it could benefit from some more repair work.

The monument, unlike many of those that commemorate slave-owners, is a modest memorial to a man whose efforts and achievements have been overshadowed by those of his fellow abolitionist, William Wilberforce. I am very grateful to our dear friends who live in Hatfield (Hertfordshire) for showing me this monument after we had enjoyed a large lunch at the Feathers Inn that Clarkson was able to see when he resolved to bring the slave trade to an end.

Voices from Ancient Rome

DOES IT REALLY MATTER how an ancient Roman, may his or her soul ‘requiescat in pace’ (RIP), pronounced the letter ‘V’? It did to the Reverend Gowing, one of my teachers of Latin at Highgate School back in the mid 1960s. Did they pronounce V as in ‘verb’ or as ‘w’ in ‘word’? To vee or not to vee? That was the question in my mind. At the school I attended before Highgate,  we pronounced the Latin v in the same way as the English v. Oddly, I felt disturbed that  Gowing believed that the toga clad Romans pronounced it as a w, as in ‘wobbly’.

LATIN ancient wikipedia commons BLOG

We questioned Gowing about this problem. Our venerable teacher decided to prove to us that he was right, that the Romans pronounced ‘veni, vidi, vici’ as ‘wayny, weedy, weeky’. His method of proof involved use of technology that was unavailable to Julius Caesar and his contemporaries.

One morning, Gowing brought a gramophone (a name derived from two Ancient Greek words) record player into our Latin classroom. He placed a record on its turntable and told us to listen very carefully. We heard someone speaking in Latin, and … enunciating words beginning with v as if they began with w. QED (three Latin words that do not contain the letter v), our Latin teacher believed.

The Reverend Gowing was old enough to believe that the gramophone record was a technical miracle that could capture the voices of those who died long ago, even around the time when BC became AD. It still amazes me to think that Gowing might have believed that. However, his ‘proof’ of the pronunciation of the Latin v did not convince me.

Some years later, I mentioned the V/W controversy (not ‘controWersy’) to someone who had a degree in linguistics.  Her view was that the ancient Romans were more likely to have pronounced v as v, and not as w. Her reasoning was based on the evolution of languages derived from Latin. For example, we neither watch a ‘wideo’ nor do we say say: ‘in wino weritas’.

Unwittingly, Reverend Gowing did something important for our class with this discussion about v. He made us question the academic authority of teachers and that is important if knowledge is to advance.

True to the spirit of what I have just written, I have just challenged what I have long believed.  I decided to  look at various sources (on the Internet) to see what they say about the current understanding of the pronunciation of V in Latin. First, the English V and U are both represented by ‘V’ in Ancient Latin. Thus, on an Ancient Roman statue of Julius Caesar, one would read ‘JVLIVS’ rather than ‘JULIUS’. Also, it appears the pronunciation of the written Latin V varies. It seems, although I do not know on what evidence this is based, that the Ancient Romans probably  pronounced v as the English say ‘w’ or even ‘oo’ (JVLIVS is a good example of this). Whether it was pronounced as ‘w’ ou ‘oo’ depended on the letters close to it in a word. For example, the name ‘FLAVIVS’ would have been pronounced ‘Flawioos’. So, our Reverend Gowing was at least half correct, and us doubters in his class were all in the wrong as far as usage of Latin by the Ancient Romans is concerned.  However, as time passed and the Roman Empire declined and fell, languages related to, or descended from, Latin adopted the V pronunciation, as did ecclesiastical users of Latin.

Finally, I have looked at the Latin textbook, which we used at school, “The Revised Latin Primer” by Benjamin Hall Kennedy. Had I not been so averse to opening this much-hated book, I would have discovered that its author, once a Fellow of St Johns College, Cambridge, wrote that ‘v’ is a “Labial Spirant (sounded as w”). If only I had taken more interest in this book instead of avoiding it whenever possible, I might have been more convinced about my teacher’s opinion about the Latin V. It seems as if I really do owe Reverend Gowing a belated apology.


[This is a somewhat new version of something I wrote earlier]


Picture from Wikimedia Commons

The voice of the Roman

When I became a pupil at Highgate School in 1965, our first Latin teacher was an elderly fellow, the Reverend Gowing. Incidentally, there was another language teacher called Cummings.

Some of the boys in my Latin class, including me, had been taught that v in Latin was pronounced like v in ‘vine’. Other pupils and also Rev Gowing were of the opinion that v in Latin was pronounced like the w in ‘wine’. Believe it or not the question of how the ancient Romans pronounced v caused lively discussions in the Latin classes.

One day, Gowing brought a gramaphone record player into the Latin class. After placing a record on its turntable, he told us to listen carefully. The record was of a man reading a text in Latin. After a few minutes listening to this, Gowing switched off the recording and said triumphantly: “Did you hear that, boys? The reader pronounced v as w.”

I think that Gowing, who was probably almost 70 if not more in 1965, believed that the record contained the voice of an Ancient Roman, rather than someone speaking during the 20th century.

Some years later, I described this controversy about the Latin v to an Italian friend who had studied linguistics at university. She felt that although no one could be certain how the Ancient Romans pronounced Latin, it was likely that they would have pronounced v as v in vine. Her reasons were based on a study of the modern languages, which were descendants of Ancient Latin. This seemed sensible enough to me.

Both Gowing and Cummings, who taught me French and a little German, have passed away. Maybe the soul of the Reverend will have a chance to chat in heaven with the souls of the Ancient Romans. If it turns out that they pronounce v the way that he taught us, there might a a flash of lightning followed by a celestial voice booming out: “WENI WIDI WICI … I told you so, boys of Lower Fifth”. And, if the lightning has not struck me, I will shout back: “venue, video,victory.”

They have never had it so good…

ARY 36 HW 60s

To many readers the early 1960s must seem as remote today as the 1860s seemed to me when I was a young boy at school in the 1960s. Between 1960, when I was eight years old, and 1965 I attended a prestigious private preparatory (‘prep’) school near Hampstead in north-west London. For those who are unfamiliar with private schooling in Britain a prep school prepares children for examinations that allow them to gain admission to Public Schools (i.e. private secondary schools).

In British schools today, teachers get into big trouble if they so much as touch one of their pupils. Even an affectionate pat, let alone a punitive slap, can get a teacher into ‘hot water’ both with the parents and with the school authorities. This was not the case at my prep school in the first half of the 1960s. Let me tell you about three of my school teachers.

Mr Rotherham taught us Latin. He was a short, slightly plump man. His face was always bright red. It looked as if he was about to burst yet another blood vessel. He was not a man to mess with. If he thought that a pupil had done something wrong, even a small grammatical mistake, he would race up to the miscreant’s desk, and seize a bunch of the poor boy’s hair. Then tugging at the hair, Mr Rotherham would pull the boy off his chair and drag him around the class room, shouting abuse. This procedure was known as a ‘Rozzie haircut’.

Mr Bathurst, who I quite liked, taught us history. Every year, we would begin with the date that Julius Caesar first landed in England and would end at 1914. The aim of the history, which we were taught at prep school, was to drum into us a series of important dates. What actually happened on those dates and the significance of those occurrences was of no importance. It was important that we could arrange in chronological order a set of items such as for example: Archbishop Laud, Agincourt, The Corn Laws, Waterloo, Magna Carta, and The Armada. Their importance was unimportant. It is no wonder that it took me many years before I realised how exciting it is to study history. On the whole, Bathurst, or ‘Batty, as we referred to him out of his earshot, was a kindly fellow. However, if you annoyed him, there were two possible outcomes. He would have called you up to the front of the class and then gripped one of your ears before twisting it painfully. Alternatively, the victim of his wrath had to lay his palm on the desk in order that Batty could hit the ‘criminal’s’ fingers with the edge of a wooden ruler.

Mr P also taught Latin. His first name was Denzil. This was also our nickname for him. Denzil’s fingers were crooked, distorted perhaps by a joint disorder. His voice was very nasal. In the early 1960s, teachers were not forbidden from smoking in class. Denzil used to hold his chalk in a crooked finger of his right hand, and a lighted cigarette in a curved finger of his other hand. His handwriting on the blackboard was illegible.  Occasionally, he would show off, claiming that he was ambidextrous. He used to let go of the cigarette and replace it with a second piece of chalk, and then write on the blackboard with both hands at the same time. The result was terrible, even more illegible than when he wrote with only one hand. If someone annoyed Denzil, he would come up to the person, and sharp clip an ear with the knuckle of one of his twisted fingers. We called this short, sharp, painful blow the ‘Denzil blip’.

Well, none of this would be tolerated in today’s Britain, and quite rightly so. In the words of the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, let me tell today’s school kids that they: “… have never had it so good…”